When London’s Robbie Williams released his 1999 U.S. debut, he warned Americans. The Ego Has Landed, he called the thing, a shrewd compilation of even shrewder songs culled from Williams’s initial U.K. solo releases—two albums (1997’s Life Thru a Lens and 1998’s I’ve Been Expecting You) that had left him a notable success at home and in most of the world’s record-buying markets. Yet in the cover photo, Williams didn’t appear as a U.S.-style egomaniac—striking a profile, bearing a gold-draped chest, or sitting behind the wheel of a Lamborghini. A heavy dark turtleneck yanked upwards just below his eyeballs, Williams looked like a Britpop Muppet.
His music, on the other hand, sizzled with self-regard, with backstory, with what F. Scott Fitzgerald might have termed the unconscious arrogance of the consciously multi-platinum. This was because—as the then 26-year-old son of a comedian and a singer, a guy who had spent his teens as a member of Take That, the mega-selling British template for teenpop—Williams was, outside America, a giant star. In Take That, he had been “the wild one,” as homegrown commentators faithfully said. When in 1995 he quit or was fired, and traveled with Oasis, possibly drugging it up, this shift in path represented for followers a perhaps troubling yet bracing story, a narrative fall from grace, from teacup propriety, from happy pop productivity. Violins sobbed.
Then Williams made those initial solo albums. They were very cagey, and very successful. The year Williams left Take That, the group had released “Back for Good,” their late (and only) masterpiece, their “Suspicious Minds,” a pure pop single so spot-on it couldn’t help but hit in America. No matter. Within a couple of years, his old group no more, Williams had figured out how to construct and sing his own version of the English boy-next-door—”That’s if,” as he explains, characteristically tossing off his own fame on “Handsome Man,” a highlight from his new Escapology, “you’re Lord Litchfield and Roger Moore.”
Working as ever with the songwriter and producer Guy Chambers, Williams with Escapology finally offers himself as an energetic player in American pop, having moved most of his record-making to Los Angeles. The hand-drummed and guitar-rich sound, often backed by no-nonsense strings, isn’t as strategic and synthetic, as London-cozy, as international hits such as “Millennium” or “No Regrets,” the revisitation of James Bond music and slippery ballad, respectively, both of which pounced off The Ego Has Landed. Similarly, there’s nothing as frankly confectionery as “Rock DJ,” the loquacious dance tune from 2000’s Sing When You’re Winning that recalled one of Ian Dury’s great old rhythmic talkathons. And as for the sweetheart Sinatraesque standards Williams animated so excellently on 2001’s not-released-in-America Swing When You’re Winning, well, that was another album, another time, another country, another wardrobe.
On Escapology, Williams presents himself as a tattooed modern, happy to be on the international hit parade yet sure that stardom issues no unalloyed blessing. He dispenses advice, telling a girl not to worry if she becomes “a little wasted” on “Get a Little High,” a dramatic mid tempo, that cutting loose equals really just “a little light entertainment” which “might just save your life.” He tells hilarious and sad and long-winded tales, staging a road movie on “Me and My Monkey,” which steps high to Latin horns. He gets hurt, then gets angry (and funny), informing the woman he addresses in “Sexed Up,” a ballad that pulses with compulsively mulled-over emotions, “Screw you/I didn’t like your taste, anyway.” He won’t sit on anyone’s sidelines. Outlining in “Feel” his plans to find real love, he runs his mouth to God, and God howls with laughter. That song gears up, pianos riffing and rhythms building, then gears up some more, mirroring how Williams jumps on words.
Will Williams, whose true tenor is both proper and conversational, ever be an American idol? “Garth Brooks doesn’t work in Italy,” a friend of mine says, citing a typical response. Last year, Williams and Maxi Jazz teamed with traveling ethnomusicologists 1 Giant Leap for “My Culture,” a panoramic pop-dance about ancestry. In a synthetic setting full of hooks, fashionable grit, and a little noise, what stood out about the piece was what has always distinguished Williams’s work, whether swinging or dancing or communing with Santa Monica guitars, right down to the lapidary éclat of his and Chambers’s arrangements: the rowdy yet precise quality of prose.
Williams, never above the well-turned boast, ignores what have become staunchly American marketplace expectations about expression. For Williams, being a pop star doesn’t mean proceeding with any less articulation or wit than any singer-songwriter or word-wise band; it also doesn’t mean operating with less musical style than any muso rock band or r&b outfit. He has, as a pop star, more of the instincts of a rapper: seeing that his words, and the lyrical way his music holds them, go wherever he wants them to. For Craig David, rap always seems naturally within shouting distance of his writerly soul. Robbie Williams likes vibes, but he goes with written ones. He is, while the exact opposite of a lyric-sheet bore, about words. And he doesn’t want them to be, as Martin Amis once heroically said of his sentences, “like some other guy’s.” That’s entertainment.